Stephanie Claus

By Megan Willome

Physician | Mother | Trainer

Pictured: Photo by Grace-Marie Brunken

The Family Health Center has brought quality medical care to vulnerable populations in and around Waco for decades, along with its highly regarded residency program in family medicine. Dr. Stephanie Claus, who graduated with honors from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, completed the residency program and continues to practice within the clinic system at the Tom Oliver South 18th Street Community Clinic.

Claus and her husband, Brian, have four children, ranging in age from 8 to 1. Other than one extended maternity leave (for a total of three months), Claus has balanced regular office hours at the clinic with a couple of days a month seeing newborns at Providence Health Center and doing medical trainings for UnBound and other groups interested in preventing human trafficking.

How does she do it all? Capacity.

“I think that we all do what we have capacity to do,” Claus said. “We know our own lives and own kids’ lives and our family’s needs. We’re experts on own families and careers. We will fill the needs where we function best.”

Wacoan writer Megan Willome visited with Claus by phone to talk about her work as a physician, why her two older children attend Valor Preparatory Academy and how Waco has changed over the past decade.

WACOAN: How did you get to Waco?

Claus: I came here for my residency in family medicine through the Family Health Center in 2008. It’s why we moved here originally, and we liked Waco and our church community.

WACOAN: And you go to Antioch Community Church?

Claus: Right.

WACOAN: Where did you go to college?

Claus: John Brown University in [Siloam Springs,] Arkansas, where I met my husband, Brian. I was a biology major, pre-med. He was an intercultural studies major.

WACOAN: When did you and your husband meet?

Claus: We met at the beginning of college, at orientation. Actually, it was there we found out our moms had both gone to boarding school in Guatemala. We started dating the last semester of my senior year and kept dating after I graduated. So we dated while I was in medical school. We married my third year of medical school, which was 2006.

Then I took a year off medical school. He was working as a missionary in Costa Rica, and I lived down there for a year with him. It’s beautiful. You should go. I really used [that time] to learn Spanish, and now I use it every day in my practice.

WACOAN: Why did you come back to Dallas and attend Southwestern for medical school?

Claus: It’s one of the top-rated medical schools in the state, and I also loved it when I went to interview.

Also, a year before I graduated college, my older sister [Cammie] had a recurrence of cancer, and my family was in Dallas for her chemo and radiation, so I wanted to be close to family. It was a big blessing to be there.

WACOAN: Is there any correlation between your sister’s cancer and your decision to become a doctor?

Claus: She was diagnosed with cancer at around 18 months old, a few months before I was born. My parents were living in Sudan at the time and came back to Dallas for her to start treatment at MD Anderson [Cancer Center]. So I grew up going with her to the hospital for checkups and follow-up procedures — I was too young to actually remember the initial cancer treatment that cured her — and always knew I wanted to be a doctor, I think in large part from watching her journey.

She had a recurrence in 2001; she was 22. Then two years later the cancer metastasized to her lungs. The summer after my first year of med school I spent a week or two down at MD Anderson helping her and my mom as she recovered from a lung surgery. But 14 years later she is cancer-free and a mother to four. She is amazing!

WACOAN: And then you came to the Family Health Center for residency. It seems like after Southwestern you could have gone anywhere. Why Waco?

Claus: Waco is rated really high for family medicine. There are not a ton of people who graduate Southwestern and go into family medicine because it’s not the most glamourous specialty, but as far as family medicine, Waco has a strong reputation.

A big part of it was thinking forward to starting a family eventually and being in a specialty that gave me flexibility and prioritized family life and not only medical life, doctor life. I enjoy the variety and the challenge and knowing a little bit about a lot of different things.

At the time we were planning on doing overseas missions, and family medicine is a good fit for that because you have a strong base of medical knowledge.

WACOAN: And the residency program is three years?

Claus: Three years. Initially, we stayed here to pay off loans. I started working with Family Health Center in the clinical group, which is basically almost like a private practice in that I have my own patients that I see, but the majority of our patients are the Family Health Center patients that are on Medicaid or Medicare or uninsured, and we have a sliding scale for them. By working for them, I was approved by the National Health Service Corps for repayment [of medical school loans in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice at an approved site].

In the meantime, Brian started working with UnBound at Antioch, initially volunteering, and then he came on staff, doing operations management.

As we were praying through where was God sending us overseas, we felt like God has put us in a missional place in Waco. The people I serve are not people I would interact with on a daily basis in my community or school. This is a population that has trouble getting to a doctor and finding a doctor that communicates well. I had opportunities to reach out to my patients spiritually, for those who do have a faith or a desire for that.

And then Brian, the same thing with UnBound — it’s a key organization in the community that works with survivors of human trafficking. I’ve partnered a little bit with that, doing some medical training. God was shutting the doors and telling us to stay here and continue doing what we’re doing.

WACOAN: Brian is part-time with UnBound, correct? Does that allow him to help more with the kids?

Claus: He works about 25 hours [per week], but maybe he went down a few this year to 20. Some of that is flexible, and he can do it from home.

For the most part the older kids attend school three days a week, and the younger ones do an MDO [Mother’s Day Out] two days a week. So he’s at the office when the kids are in school or I’m at home. When I go to work on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, he watches the kids. A lot of times it’s a quick handoff at lunch, update each other and switch places.

WACOAN: You said you do medical training with UnBound. What does that involve?

Claus: One of the main goals of UnBound is to train professionals to recognize human trafficking victims and learn what they can do to prevent human trafficking. When there are groups of nurses that want training, I’m one of the people that does it.

Last year I did a training for about 200 school nurses. We did a trip to Puerto Rico a couple years ago and partnered with their public health department there, training with medical professionals. We did training at the medical school and health department [in Puerto Rico]. In general, we’ve done one at [Baylor Scott & White Medical Center] Hillcrest with the emergency department, one with several of the nursing floors at Hillcrest. Even at Family Health Center, they have a track for residents that’s international medicine [Global Health Track], and I’ve done the human trafficking training there too.

It’s a much bigger problem than people realize.

In my practice, a lot of my youth would be considered at-risk, so I get to talk with them about what kinds of relationships are they in, talking with parents about watching what happens online and being aware of the dangers that are out there.

WACOAN: I would imagine it can be hard to leave your work at the office, from an emotional standpoint.

Claus: It’s hard. I try to do everything I can do. When I feel like I’m at my limit is when I go to God in prayer, lifting up people. I feel like that’s an area where my faith helps me. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of some of those situations and to realize that we do have some limitations on how much we can help with things. Going home to my kids — that is a good mood shift that’s needed. They can bring some joy when a day at work has been hard.

But Waco has really come together to create resources, even for uninsured patients to see a specialist or get them some kind of follow-up. We do still have a counselor who’s here at our clinic who will meet with our patients. It helps to have those resources set up so they can continue to get the care they need.

WACOAN: I was going to ask what you like about practicing medicine in Waco, and it sounds like collaboration is an answer to that question.

Claus: We have several specialists that will come and volunteer a day or two or three a month and see our patients free of charge or at least through our Good Health Card program [a financial assistance program for qualifying patients to use only at Family Health Center clinics and pharmacy]. That’s such a huge help to have those resources available and have those partnerships.

World Hunger Relief partnered with us to give us the veggie boxes to encourage our patients to eat healthily.

WACOAN: I’ve heard of the program. How does it work?

Claus: For so many medical issues, the root cause is partially nutrition and obesity. Part of our education is nutritional: eat more veggies and less processed foods.

[World Hunger Relief] provided these boxes. They dropped them off two times a week for patients who needed nutritional intervention. We could give them a prescription for a veggie box to work on weight loss, heart health, blood pressure, diabetes. And in the box were some ideas for how to prepare [the veggies].

It is more expensive to eat more fresh produce in your diet, so patients born into poverty maybe didn’t grow up eating lots of fresh foods. So when their doctors ask them to eat vegetables, they don’t even know where to start. The veggie boxes gave sample starter packs — this is kale and how you eat it and how you prepare it. It was different every week.

WACOAN: What are some of the other partnerships?

Claus: Baylor pre-med program [students] come and volunteer, and they set up a kids play area in the waiting room. They fill in and help with restocking supplies, to fill in the gaps where there’s need.

There is a spirit of cooperation in Waco, and there’s a really quality system to care for patients who are uninsured or underinsured. I love our patients. There’s such a diversity; I see about one-third Hispanic, one-third African-American, one-third white.

WACOAN: Do you have a regular schedule or does it shift?

Claus: My clinic schedule is the same: all day Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

I also work at Providence with newborns a couple days a month.

WACOAN: How does that work?

Claus: Basically, any baby born at Providence who doesn’t have a pediatrician, they need a doctor to see the child in the hospital. So several of us at Family Health Center rotate and take on the care of those babies. It’s a lot of fun. I get to see the little babies and do their exams and work on breastfeeding with the moms, do circumcisions, whatever they need. If they need a physician, they can follow up with our clinic, which is helpful.

WACOAN: Let’s talk about your kids. You have four?

Claus: The oldest is Corinthia; we call her Cory. She’s 8, in third grade. Isaiah is 6, first grade. Elena is 3, going on 16. And 1-year-old, Tessa. So three girls and a boy.

WACOAN: That’s a lot of kids fairly close in age.

Claus: Some days are crazy, and some days are amazingly fun. Anyone with kids this age sometimes feels overwhelmed.

Brian is really helpful with the kids. He’s watched them since they were babies because I had to go back to work pretty quickly after they were born. We co-parent together really well. We try to communicate well about our schedules and making sure we have everything covered. It’s been super helpful to have family near to fill in some of those gaps, when someone has to get to a violin lesson and the babies are asleep.

WACOAN: What activities do you have to coordinate around right now?

Claus: Right now we’ve got violin, piano and sports. Isaiah’s playing basketball, and Cory’s going to play volleyball in the spring. Cory and Elena do ballet. Cory plays violin with Central Texas String Academy. Isaiah does piano.

WACOAN: You mentioned family helping out — you do have family in Waco?

Claus: I do. My sister [Amanda] lives here. She just had a baby herself, so she’s busy with that, but we get to see her. My husband’s parents just moved here from Chicago in October, and they’ve been a huge help.

WACOAN: And your parents?

Claus: Still in Dallas.

WACOAN: Your children are at Valor Preparatory Academy. Why did you choose that school?

Claus: We mostly chose it because we wanted them to have more of an unstructured environment to make room for extracurriculars and things. They go to school three days a week and are home Tuesday-Thursday. [The teachers] send home assignments, but usually we get that done in the morning, so the afternoon is free to play and have activities.

It’s great to have more time with them while they’re little. They get more time with each other — they get to be each other’s best friends, which is a big benefit. I wouldn’t be able to home-school with my work schedule, so it’s worked out well to have that option.

It’s a nice model where you get a little bit of both: classroom environment and the social opportunity there but also downtime at home.

WACOAN: Do you do most of the home schooling or does Brian do some of it too?

Claus: I pretty much do most of the home-school part before I go to work. Then I leave a few things for him in the afternoon but more things the kids can do on their own. He is helping more with that recently. As they get older, the workload gets more.

WACOAN: When school is out, what do you like to do as a family on a weekend?

Claus: We love to go to the farmers market together. We enjoy playing board games. The kids are on a big blanket fort-building kick right now. They love to play inside or outside, building forts. My parents have some land, a ranch, near Hillsboro, so we meet them there and go outside — hiking, fishing, four-wheeling. Isaiah likes to fish.

Getting together with friends with kids is a lot of fun too.

WACOAN: Do you know a lot of families through Antioch?

Claus: Through church or through families we know through school. We also have some wonderful neighbors.

We’re involved in a lifegroup every week. We tend to co-lead — we’re not the official leaders. We have been section leaders [over multiple lifegroups], but we’re phasing out of that.

WACOAN: Often in interviews for the Wacoan, no matter what the interview is about, people tell us Waco is a great place for families. What have you found while raising your family here?

Claus: It has great school options. It’s almost like any activity you would want is available but not too far away and not too many choices. It’s not overwhelming. You can talk to a few friends and get ideas.

I also love that it’s a small enough community that you can run into friends pretty easily. Like going to the farmers market, we’ll run into another family that we know and get to visit that way.

WACOAN: How has Waco changed over the time you’ve lived here?

Claus: I think there’s been a big image shift since ‘Fixer Upper.’ We’ll see friends from Portland, Oregon, who came to Austin and took a day trip away from Austin to come to Waco. That was unheard of a couple of years ago. Now Waco is cool, and it didn’t use to be when we moved here. A big part of me wishes Waco would stay small, where you know people everywhere you go.

I’ve realized some of the benefits of the change — more eating options and shopping options.

WACOAN: Name some favorites, both eating and shopping.

Claus: I’m a big Indian-food-lover, so we were excited about Stone Hearth opening in Waco. Also some of the Greek restaurants, like Alpha Omega. I do love that we have a World Market now, and it’s on my way home from work, so I can run in there real quick.

WACOAN: You have a busy job and a busy home life. How do you take care of yourself?

Claus: I try to make sure I get enough sleep. I try to sleep seven to eight hours, which is important and we don’t do enough of in our culture. We have a pretty strict 8 p.m. bedtime for the kids, so Brian and I can get some downtime to reconnect or read or watch TV together.

I’d like to say we do more date nights, but the baby is still breastfeeding. She’s 1 now, so we need to do that again. We try to get a night away every couple months to focus on our marriage.

I try to get together with friends or play dates on a regular basis to fill that social need.

We try to be cognizant of what our schedule feels like when it feels too crazy. We look at what we can say no to. We’ve found ourselves a couple times saying, ‘We’re overwhelmed,’ and that’s when it’s time to step back and pray through things and see what do we have to say no to, to have our family feel peaceful and feel like it’s thriving.

WACOAN: What does the idea of keeping balance mean to you as a working mom?

Claus: I think it means prioritizing family while still meeting my work requirements and thriving in that environment as well. I think it means giving myself permission to say no to some things, finding a balance where I feel like I am thriving in both spheres and contributing significantly in both spheres and feeling fulfilled in both of those roles.

As women, we’re really good at multitasking and not looking at things at surface value. Even though it can be difficult, we’re well-suited to finding that balance of valuing people and realizing the responsibilities that need to be met and continuing to contribute and making a difference in both those areas, the work sphere and the home sphere.

I think also, when I was thinking about this article, I’ve always been a full-time working mom — [working] between 40-80 hours in residency; then part-time, 25-30 hours; then briefly as a stay-at-home mom when on maternity leave. (With Tessa, I had three months off.) They were all difficult and challenging in their own ways and rewarding in their own ways. I expected that three months of maternity leave would be a break and vacation, and it wasn’t. It was just as busy.

It was a good reminder to me that there isn’t this hierarchy of working moms have it harder or stay-at-home moms have it harder. We’re each seeing and meeting the needs of our family, and that’s going to be unique for each family.